Professor Irena Huml
Introduction. Origins of a passion of a young researcher
This book by Dr Maria Wrońska-Friend, Art Drawn with Wax: Batik in Indonesia and Poland is an important and long-awaited publication. It fills a major gap in textile studies by presenting, for the first time ever, both past and recent Polish accomplishments with batik technique, while at the same time situating the textile art of our country in an international context. Dr Wrońska-Friend considers the adaptation of the Javanese decorative method into Polish arts to be one of the most interesting examples of the cross-cultural transfer of the batik technique to Europe. She believes that Polish batiks, together with Dutch batiks, should be recognized not only as an artistic but also as a technical advancement of this method of textile decoration. Polish artists significantly expanded the vocabulary of batik designs and, as a result of numerous successful experiments conducted with new plant dyes, they were able to increase greatly the range of colors and hues available.
The author’s research commences at the beginnings of the twentieth century, when Polish artists became fascinated both with the original Javanese batik textiles and their ‘exotic beauty’ as well as with the technique of ‘drawing with wax’, introducing it to their fabric decoration. Batik technique was first introduced into European arts in the late nineteenth century by Dutch artists, and quickly found followers all over Europe, including Poland. The peak of popularity of this technique in our country came in the first quarter of the twentieth century. In recent years, batik has once again become popular among Polish artists and the last section of the book documents this new artistic trend.
The issue of the similarities and differences between Javanese batik textiles and their European interpretations, including Polish ones, became a topic of interest for the author many years ago, well before she began to write this book. Maria Wrońska-Friend presented the outcomes of her research as an outstanding PhD thesis at the Institute of Arts of the Polish Academy of Sciences in Warsaw in 1987. Following graduation from the Department of Ethnology at the University of Lodz and employment as a curator at the Asia and Pacific Museum in Warsaw (an institution which among its significant Indonesian collections had a large group of Javanese batiks), she was well prepared to undertake this pioneering, ambitious research.
It is worth mentioning that the idea for her PhD topic was born quite spontaneously. I remember the circumstances quite well. I was invited to view the exhibition of batik textiles of the Polish artist Tadeusz Walter, presented in the gallery Nusantara in Warsaw in 1981. In the absence of the artist, I was given a guided tour and provided with an insightful commentary by Maria Wrońska, a young curator of textiles from the Asia and Pacific Museum. It was at that time that I mentioned to her the little-known but important collection of Polish batiks made at the Cracow Workshops during the years 1913-1926, the success of which had made the technique popular all over the country. During the decades between the First and Second World Wars, the wax-resist dyeing technique fascinated numerous Polish artists, who produced batik textiles individually or in commercial workshops, and on many occasions the Javanese method of decoration was introduced into the program of art education.
At this time, I also mentioned to Ms Wrońska the achievements of the Cracow batiks at several exhibitions, including the International Exhibition of Decorative Arts in Paris in 1925. I remarked that the international panel of judges awarded the Polish batiks several prizes, including the Grand Prix. High appreciation was given to the wide range of colors of Polish textiles as well as to their decorative style, which often represented a fusion of Javanese inspirations and traditions of local Polish craft. Moreover, Polish batiks could be recognized as the continuity of certain traditions of Polish heritage, which in previous centuries frequently incorporated elements of Oriental cultures.
Later discussions with Maria Wrońska focused on the topic of the proposed PhD thesis, which she decided to write as a participant in my PhD seminar in the Institute of Arts at the Polish Academy of Sciences. The decision meant that she had to expand her anthropological knowledge by studying the history of European crafts (known during the interwar period as ‘decorative arts’). Her research passion very soon provided tangible results, starting with a survey of Polish and Javanese batiks held in the collections of Polish museums. Soon after, she decided to expand her research to include collections in other European countries. This necessitated frequent travels abroad, especially to the Netherlands. In order to research primary sources, Ms Wrońska decided to learn the Dutch language, concluding that her fluency in English, the ‘universal’ medium of communication, was not sufficient. Ensuing research visits to London, Paris and Berlin did not pose for her any linguistic challenges.
Research in Europe was interspersed with visits to Indonesia in order to study the Javanese process of batik production, including learning the technique in one of the workshops. It was also important to gain an understanding of the symbolic significance of patterns and compositions as well as their transcendent meanings, usually little understood by Europeans, who commonly respond to these fabrics entirely visually. Most importantly, however, Ms Wrońska’s research focused on the understanding of the essence of batik art, which in Indonesia today remains in high esteem and has achieved spiritual significance.
The outcome of each of her travels was presented at seminars and other meetings, illustrated with the author’s photographs taken in situ. These presentations revealed new layers of complex meanings in Javanese batiks, of this little-known or forgotten art form which had begun to fascinate Western artists and researchers in the previous century. The data collected or created by Maria Wrońska during her research process was very impressive. Her PhD thesis, written in English, was of outstanding quality and received the highest recognition from both reviewers and examiners.
However, the publication of the results of her research in Poland encountered numerous difficulties. Although the author signed an agreement with a publishing house in Warsaw in 1990 and submitted the text, the book was never published due to the liquidation of the company. At that time Dr Wrońska-Friend (now married) had already left Poland to conduct ethnographical research in Papua New Guinea. Later she moved to Australia, where she took a position of lecturer at James Cook University. Simultaneously, she continued her research interests, collaborating with museums in Europe and Australia. She created several specialized collections and organized many exhibitions, at the same time actively participating in international research projects. In spite of numerous other duties and research interests, over the years she maintained her interest in batik textiles, becoming an outstanding specialist in this area.
The publication of the book was postponed for a number of years. In 2007, however, the author made a determined decision to revisit this project. This is a timely publication because of the increased international interest in batik textiles over recent decades. Apart from the growing interest in Indonesian and Southeast Asian textiles from scholars, researchers and collectors, there is also a significant group of contemporary artists who have decided to use the batik technique as a medium of painting. The growing significance of the contemporary batik art movement, as well as new research presented through publications and exhibitions, gave new impetus towards the development of modern collections of these textiles.
Not only museums create and expand their collections. A growing number of private collectors are interested in this type of textile, among whom there are real connoisseurs, owners of very significant collections. To this group belongs Rudolf G. Smend, the owner of one of the most well-known collections of Javanese batiks in the world, who has kindly agreed to the presentation of many of his textiles in this book. Selections of batiks from this important, well-researched collection have been exhibited in many countries, including Poland. Several years ago a selection was displayed at the Central Textile Museum in Lodz, more recently in Warsaw, and in 2007-2008 in Cracow.
In 2006, Dr Wrońska-Friend curated an exhibition, Painted with Wax, at the State Museum of Ethnography in Warsaw. The batiks on loan from Rudolf Smend’s collection provided an extensive background for the comparison of Javanese textiles and the Polish interpretations of this technique. The exhibition was followed by a seminar dedicated not only to the historical batik, but also to the recent Polish achievements in this area. It is worth mentioning that the Warsaw exhibition included a range of contemporary batik fabrics, providing evidence of the growing interest among Polish artists in this technique and its potential as a medium to express most current visions and tendencies.
Dr Wrońska-Friend also organised a similar exhibition, Encounters in Wax, which opened at the end of 2007 in Cracow, in the Museum of Japanese Culture and Technique ‘Manggha’. Cracow – the place where Polish batik was born - is of special significance for the author, who wants to bring back the memory of the artists and events which made such a special contribution to the art of Polish batik in the first half of the twentieth century.
However, among these various undertakings by Dr Maria Wrońska-Friend, probably the most lasting one will be this book, Art drawn with wax: Batik in Indonesia and Poland, a passionate and insightful account illustrated with outstanding examples of Javanese and Polish batiks.
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